December 19, 2008

Joint Game Mastering: Things you need to know

One of the most enduring images I have of myself during my formative years is sitting alone at a table, meticulously filling in the hexagons of a large grid with symbols representing different types of terrain. I don’t know why, but upon reflection they were some of the happiest times of my childhood. Needless to say I was born to GM and over the years I have run quite a few campaigns with a diverse set of folks.

As I have gotten older however and the burdens of family and my career have increased exponentially (well not family really, my wife is a gamer) and I do not have the time I once had to devote to putting together a really good campaign. After being pestered by my friends for some time about starting something in the Star Wars universe I finally decided that I would be willing to give it another go, with the stipulation that I would need someone to help. This turned out to be a very good idea as our gaming group has grown quite large (we have 7 players in addition to the 2 GM’s) and logistically it would be a nightmare for a single person. Our Star Wars campaign has been running somewhat smoothly for over a year now (with a brief hiatus for my wedding and honeymoon) and I can honestly say co-GMing has been one of the most fulfilling gaming experiences I have had in years.

After a tenuous start, my co-GM and I have hit upon some things that what work (and some things that don’t) when Gamemastering with a partner, and Jonathan has been gracious enough to let me share them with you.

1. Good communication is essential. I think this is obvious but when dealing with “nerds” it is always important to emphasize the point. Make sure your co-GM is someone you can talk to and preferably someone you have played with in the past so you know they aren’t a gibbering idiot. Often times it is difficult to plan time to meet (especially if work/families are involved), so having another method of communication is essential. E-mail is adequate, but I would highly recommend a private forum, as it allows you to discuss issues by topic and keep a record of your discussions.

2. Have an overall story ark, but be receptive to changes. Gamemastering is a pursuit that tends to exclusively appeal to megalomaniacs. Who else would get a kick out of creating an entire world, that they control and offering that world for others to experience. Having to populate the details of that world with someone else in mind can be a difficult adjustment. It behooves you to discuss the campaign before hand and set down some ground rule. What is the tone of the campaign? What is the structure (free-form or story ark)? Are we going to have ancillary characters? What type? This interaction is one of the most rewarding parts of Co-GMing, as you never realize how much better a story can become when you get someone else’s input until you actually do it. Some of the best parts of the campaign are ideas I would have NEVER thought of on my own.

3. Have a fair and adequate division of labor and play to each others strengths. Generally in our Star Wars campaign I write the overall story ark and the individual adventures while my partner runs the combat encounters, we both participate in the role-playing, although I do a bit more of the story oriented stuff. This works well, as my partner has a long and storied reputation in our gaming group of designing elaborate deathtraps and I tend to be more of a “story dude.” In general it is better to give chores to the folks who like doing them if possible. I know world design/story development is my favorite part while my colleague enjoys running the combats so it works well for us. In the event that neither or both like a particular activity, be sure to alternate that task with each gaming session to ensure that both folks stay engaged.

4. Present a united front. Gamers are like children, any division between authority figures will be ruthlessly exploited for their own personal gain. Often times we will have rule disputes that cannot be resolved at that session. When that happens we have developed a standard policy. We roll a dice to determine the outcome and say that this is a temporary solution, we will provide a permanent solution at the next session. After the session we confer personally or via the forum, if necessary we bring players into the discussion as well.

5. Take advantage of technology. It is easy and inexpensive to set up an Internet forum for yourselves and for the players. This allows the entire group to communicate and provides a venue for you and your Co-GM to confer. We do a lot of the heavy background RP stuff between sessions, and the players seem to really enjoy it. We also have a simple website up that we allow characters to modify:

I'm a big fan of Google Pages as it is VERY easy to use (of course I'm sure some web designers are cringing). It serves as a nice reference tool for the players and the GMs, and lets folks keep up on the story if a long period of time has elapsed between sessions. (Guess which of the players are technophobes by the quality of their pages...)

Jason, a new guest author here at The Core Mechanic, says "If you ever spent a lazy Saturday afternoon drawing dungeon maps in your bedroom when you were a 10-year-old, you are my kind of guy. I've played every version of D&D,WFB, WFRP, old-school Middle Earth, and I have about 20 boxes of obscure Avalon Hills games hiding in my parents basement. I have also played some D20 Modern and I am currently co-GMing a large Star Wars campaign. I tend to GM, and I definitely fall somewhere into the power-gamer spectrum when I am a player, much to my chagrin when my players attempt the same shenanigans with me..."


  1. I'm not sure I could do co-GMing. Items 1,3,4 remind me a little of parenting.

    Item #5 is really part of #1, but I can understand why its broken out. #5 can really enable people to communicate. This why people using Wikis.

    As a web developer myself, I don't cringe if people want to use Google pages. I say use what you feel comfortable with.

  2. My boyfriend and I are kind of co-GMing, mostly because I agreed to use a system he likes that's new to me and wanted help with the crunchy bits :) So he does some of those, then runs a character in the actual game.

    I prefer a blog with tags to a web page though. Less upkeep if links change.


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